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In Memory Of

I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t write about the loss of one of our good friends in Bangkok. When Nai and I go to the Big Mango, we always look up our friends Git and Goh. We can usually find out where they’re hanging out by checking in at a hole-in-the-wall (HITW) restaurant/bar/karaoke where Git has worked at times and where he can quite often be found. We went there in late June and Nai asked about Git. The folks who own the place, who always welcome us with open arms, spoke with Nai for a bit, and Nai turned to me and said “Git die.” “What?!” I said. We were both too stunned for words. What a complete shock. It seems that he was getting severe headaches, but didn’t go see a doctor until it was too late. He passed on just after Songkran, around the middle of April, from what, I don’t know–encephalitis, meningitis, an edema or tumor?

Git was such an extremely outgoing guy, enthusiastic, polite. He was the one who would fill your glass with beer or ice if you were running low on either, the one who would wipe off a wet or messy table, the guy who would go punch in your karaoke tune. Though he wasn’t that great of a singer, he loved karaoke. He always encouraged me to give it a go, though I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The night we found out about his death, Nai and I went to our favorite karaoke bar and I sang a Beatles tune, “In My Life,” dedicated to him. A lot of tears were shed. We’ll miss you, Git. Rest In Peace.

Here’s a shot of Goh (on the left) and Git enjoying a bit too much beer in one of our favorite karaokes.

Coincidentally, while Nai and I were there this past June, Goh, who is deeply broken-hearted by the loss of his friend, was recuperating from what I think was an appendectomy up in his hometown of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Nai phoned him after getting his number from the people working in the HITW restaurant/bar/karaoke, and from the description Nai gave me of his medical problem, it sounded like appendicitis. Goh will be back in Bangkok by now. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t post a photo of our friends who own and work in the HITW place. Quintessential Thai–friendly, fun-loving and welcoming.

Buddhist Lent and Merit Making

Today marks the beginning of the 3-month long Buddhist Lent period, known as Khao Pansa (or Phansa or Vassa). It occurs at the start of the rainy season, and it’s the time when Buddhist monks return to their home monasteries, there to remain for the remainder of Lent. It’s also a time when ordinary folks increase their spirtual activities and, perhaps, give up some of their luxuries (smoking, drinking, meat) for the period, much like the Christian Lent period. Click here and here for a couple of web sites that talk about this in more depth.

I talked to Nai last night, and he and his family were busy preparing an elaborate meal to serve today to the monks at the wat near his house. I was present several years back during this time, and below are a couple of photos from then.

Here’s the meal, with Nai and some friends who helped serve it.

Guess who got to wash the dishes afterwards?

This is merit making, doing good deeds, not because it’ll gain you spiritual favor, but because it’s the right thing to do. Another way of merit-making is to release animals, like birds, fish or turtles, that have been captured. Many of the animals can be purchased near the temples (a bit of a racket, it you ask me) and then released at the temple or elsewhere. While I was in Laos this summer, Nai made merit this way in the hopes that his fatally ill (according to Lao and Thai doctors) mother would gain favor. First, he purchased a couple of small turtles at one of the markets, then bought some birds at Wat Si Muang, where he prayed for about 10 minutes with one of the monks. Then we went to the Mekong, where he released the birds and the turtles.

Here are a few shots of the various statuary at Wat Si Muang.





Nai also told me that the local villagers have been warned that a repeat of the flooding of 2008 is once again a possibility. Many people blame it on the upstream dams built by the Chinese, but there’s certainly been a huge amount of rain in China that’s contributing to high water levels. Let’s hope they don’t get higher. More later.

New Years Feast

I mentioned in my previous post that I could eat Mekong fish all day. New Year’s Day put that statement to a test. It seems that eating fish on that day is a Lao tradition, at least among Nai’s family and friends. About 20 good-sized fish were purchased, cooked and eaten, with friends and relatives dropping by from time to time to enjoy the feast. I kept nibbling, right along with everyone else, and by the time all the food was taken care of, I was stuffed. Here’s a sampling of the New Year fare, which also includes noodles, sticky rice, various greens, papaya salad, spicy bean paste dip, and, of course, the ever present bottles of Beer Lao.

Food1-w

But, what’s a holiday feast without friends and family? Below, from left to right, are a cousin (name unknown), Nui (Nai’s sister), a friend of the family (name unknown), and camera ham Nai.

Food-and-Friends1-w

Of course, many other people came and went, some staying to dance to the music blaring from loudspeakers set up outside by Pui, one of Nai’s brothers. Here’s Nui and her mother enjoying a dance together.

Nui-and-Mer2

Here’s Nai with some friends and cousins enjoying the day.

Nai_and_Cousins

Finally, this fellow was already two sheets to the wind and was pretty much out of it by the end of the festivities.

Beer_Drinker

Next up: Christmas in Vang Vieng

Thai/Laos Photos and Comments

As promised, I’m finally posting some photos and comments about my recent trip to Laos and Thailand. Some of the comments I made in earlier posts, so if I duplicate myself, forgive me. I’ll post these over a period of days (hopefully), so hang in there.

Here’s a photo of my former Andong University colleague, Tyra, with whom I rendezvoused in Bangkok. She’s a Canadian and is now basking in the sun on the beaches of Bali. We also hooked up with Eugene, another former colleague (American), but for some odd reason I didn’t get any photos of him nor did he get any of me. Strange. Perhaps we were focused in on the lovely Tyra. You can see more photos of her at the Photo Gallery. This is at Wat Pho in Bangkok, site of the Reclining Buddha.

Tyra_Buddha

So, it was up to Laos after the short stay in Bangkok. I met Nai at the train station in Nong Khai, Thailand, and we crossed the border into communist Laos. Believe me, unless you have to deal with the bureaucracy, you wouldn’t know it was a communist state. The people, for the most part, are not political. Many of them dislike the system, but they accept it with a nonchalance that reflects their easy-going lifestyle, or so it seems to me. If another system were in place, they would probably feel the same way.

Anyway, we hung out at Nai’s house and in Vientiane for several days before heading up to Vang Vieng. Before leaving, Nai introduce me to his wonderful friends, Say (pronounced “sigh”) and his wife Joi (“joy”). Great people, who welcomed me into their home like I was a long-lost brother. I would see more of them when we returned to Vientiane later. Here are Say and Joi sharing a tender moment.

Say_Joi_small

Then it was off to Vang Vieng, about which I have written. Like I stated in an earlier post, the weather was beautiful. Compare the following picture with the one I took last June.

Dry Season
Vang_Vieng_06_1
Monsoon Season
Vang_Vieng1

Here are some photos from the river float. I’m not sure I’d want to try this during the rainy part of the year when the river is high. Here are Nai, a lady whose name I forget, and Guy (the friend of the woman) putting in at the start point.

PuttingIn

Here’s Nai in a death defying slide at one of the many stops along the river.

Nai_Slide

And here is Robert, a fellow who was along with Guy and his girlfriend and who works in Vientiane, and Nai with a cool Beer Lao at one of the many beverage stations lining the river. Actually, it looks like they’ve had more than a couple.

Bev_Stop_1

There’s not a whole lot to do in Vang Vieng besides float the river. You can explore some caves or do a little hiking in the mountains. Here, Nai sits on a quaint, little, orange suspension bridge that leads to one of the caves. (Notice the Morocco cap he’s wearing.)

Nai_on_Bridge

After a busy day on the river, though, you can visit, if that’s your thing, one of the many bars along the main tourist drag where seemingly bored tourists lay on futons watching reruns of “Friends,” something I just don’t understand. Why come all the way to Laos and then lay around like zombies entranced by the boob tube? And that seems to be all that these bars show, and there are plenty of them, at least half a dozen, all showing “Friends” reruns, speakers turned up to the max. Idiotic. Vang Vieng is infamous, though, for catering to the “pot head” tourist, so maybe the folks watching TV are actually pretty much “zoned out,” unable to do much of anything else. Just my opinion. I won’t patronize these places; the gal who came tubing with us suggested that we go to one to eat before we went out to the river, but I refused.

Or, you can walk along some of the side streets and try out some of the local food at one of the numerous vendors. Here we found some delicious chicken, broiled over the standard charcoal fire.

Night_Vendor

Ok, that’s enough for now. I’ll continue the journey to Luang Prabang the next post. More later.

Bangkok–Tyra and Eugene

At the guesthouse, I got a note from Tyra. She said that she had stayed up as long as she could, waiting for me to get there, but finally had to get some sleep. Well, it was good to know that she had made it and I found her the next morning. We had breakfast together and then called Eugene on his cell phone. He’s working in Chanthaburi (spelling might be wrong), about 60 miles from Bangkok. Fortunately, he was able to get some time off and he was staying at a guesthouse near us. So, we hooked up for the day, visited some temples, rode around on the river boats and had dinner together, catching up on old times at Andong University and on what our plans were for the future.

As a side note, I might mention that it appears my Moroccan job is finished as of the middle/end of July. A new ruling by the State Dept. says that English Language Fellows can only renew once for an existing project. John wanted to put me in Rabat for a different project, so it looks like I’m out of a job. I’ve sent a few emails to Georgetown University (administrator for the ELF program) and to the State Dept., expressing my complaints about what seems like a mid-stream switch. I doubt it will do any good. As soon as I get back to Meknes, I’ll start sending out applications. Going back to work in Korea is a definite possibility, maybe even back to Andong. There are also numerous job opportunities in the Middle-East, and John mentioned he might also have a few contacts. I’m sure something will pop up.

I said my goodbyes to Tyra and Eugene and hopped aboard the overnight train to Nong Khai, an uneventful journey to the northeast and to Isan country, gateway to Laos.

Itching to Travel

Time flies. Though I started March with a flurry of posts, it’s almost a week later that I write this next one. There are people I’ve talked with who think I lead an exotic life, being able to visit and live and work in countries that they can only dream of. That’s true for much of the time, but there are moments that I feel that I live a rather boring existence, and one day seems to flow into the next. So, the sometimes long intervals between postings do not seem that far apart to me. Still, living in Morocco usually provides me with enough interesting events to keep me writing, but lately I’ve settled into a rather monotonous routine. I guess I get lazy at times, but, for the most part, I feel like I lead a rather dull life. It’s all relative, I suppose, but sometimes there’s just nothing to say.

At any rate, I leave for Thailand and Laos in a few weeks, a three-week sojourn to my favorite part of the world, so far. Nothing dull about that. Cliched as it sounds, it IS a small world in which we (well, some of us) live. Just the other evening, Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to be part of a cultural presentation class for the students at the American Language Center here. One fellow, a Moroccan, had visited Texas a while back, so he gave a talk on the Lone Star State. Another, a young man from South Carolina who teaches at the ALC, spoke about his life and family heritage in the deep south. I gave a short presentation on Cajuns, an ethnic, cultural aspect of my father’s side of my family. It’s been years and years since I’ve been exposed to the people famous for jambalaya, gumbo and zydeco music, but it was a lot of fun talking about them. I think the 50 or so kids and adults who attended enjoyed hearing about our experiences in American culture.

Seriously, there’s not much to relate, from my point of view. I’m kind of bored. (I guess I should get out more) Perhaps I’m looking forward to my upcoming trip. But, the weather has been gorgeous; tomorrow and Sunday’s forecast is calling for sunny skies and temperatures in the 75-80 degrees F. range. Looks like a bike ride is in the forecast, too. I’ll probably also go shopping in the medinah for souvenirs for my friends in Thailand and Laos. Tyra and Eugene, former colleagues from Andong Univ. in Korea, are meeting me in Bangkok, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again. Eugene, an American, is working in Chanthaburi, a few hours from Bangkok and Tyra, Canadian, is slacking off (as Canadians tend to do) 😛 in Southeast Asia after teaching in Korea for several years. Wow! Only a few more weeks and I’ll be in the “Land of Smiles” again. Hope I can wait that long. More later.

Feast Day . . . Friday

The day of the Feast of Sacrifice, Wednesday, was beautiful. I sat with Saif and his family on the roof of their apartment in the bright sun, waiting for the butcher to arrive. I even got a bit of sunburn. The fellow was an hour or so late, so we sat around talking–Saif, his younger brother, sister, mother, Saif’s friend, his brother’s friend and me. We ate oranges and a dish that tasted a lot like macaroni and cheese, only it was made of bread and milk and baked in the oven. Really quite tasty, as was all of the food I ate the past few days. Try some of the Moroccan recipes here; you won’t be disappointed.

Finally the butcher arrived. He had already had 10 appointments that day. The sheep was well taken care of before, as it was given water to drink and salt to eat. After wrestling the reluctant animal to the ground, it was hogtied and the butcher then sliced its throat, the blood flowing out on the rooftop, though not as much as I expected. It was all very quick, and I don’t think the animal suffered much, thankfully. Muslims feel a lot of respect and gratitude for the sheep, though there was no religious ritual involved. After it was decided that the sheep was truly dead, Saif used a bicycle pump to inflate air into the carcass through a cut made in the leg. It started to puff up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon; this was necessary to make the separation of the skin from the meat easier. I watched the whole process, from taking the skin off, to the removal of the “innards” and their subsequent cleaning, to the burning of the head in order to remove the horns and to cook the brain. It was quite a long and tiring procedure, taking the most part of two hours, with the entire family and friends involved. I took photos, but I’m only posting a few here (none of the bloodier ones, though). In the photo below, the butcher finishes off the “balloon.” Clockwise from left are Nouaman (Saif’s younger brother), Saif, his mother, and the butcher.

Below, Saif’s brother and sister are roasting the head of the sheep over an open flame. (I cropped out the head, but if you want to see the full photo, it’s in the gallery.) They roast, then scrape off the fuzz or beard, roast some more, scrape off more, roast, scrape, etc. Takes quite a while. Then the horns are chopped off with a hatchet that, to me, resembled a small medieval battle axe. Eventually, the skull is split open and the brain is removed and cooked. I didn’t have any brains, I don’t think. (No derogatory comments, please.) 😆

Afterwards, we ate sheep-liver kabobs cooked over a charcoal grill, stuffed in bread and sprinkled with salt, cumin and mildly hot red pepper. You can’t dine on meat any fresher. . .

The sun began to lower in the west, the afternoon becoming chilly, so we went downstairs to the apartment. More conversation followed, and eventually I mentioned that I’d better leave, since I was riding my bike and I didn’t want to ride in the dark, but I was entreated to stay for the evening meal. This consisted of warm bread fresh out of the oven, a stew of various parts of the sheep and oranges. Again, pretty tasty. Finally, I took my leave. I was invited back, though, on Friday for lunch. Because of all the work involved with the sheep, Saif’s mother did not have time to cook a proper meal, so I returned today.

Two of Saif’s uncles and an aunt were there, visiting from Casablanca, Tangiers and from a small village just outside of Meknes. Today we ate, guess what? . . . yes, sheep! This was a roast, smothered in prunes and apricots. We tore off chunks of fresh-baked bread and used it to scoop out the fruit and meat, which was so tender it virtually fell from the bone, no knives or forks needed. We also had more sheep kabobs and oranges. I was fairly stuffed. The meal was preceded by tea and followed by coffee. Basically, I’ve eaten more sheep these two days than I’ve eaten in the totality of my life before. It’s pretty good. I think the whole of Morocco and, indeed, most of the Muslim world have been eating sheep for the last three days. I suppose a sharpster could invest in sheep futures and make a small fortune. Of course, my heart goes out to the families of all those lost in the tragedy of the Hajj in Mecca.

At any rate, I was very happy and honored to be invited by Saif to his house. This is not unusual in Morocco. The country is reknowned for its hospitality, where the “guest is king,” according to one of my guide books. More later.

Feast Tomorrow

Saif, one of my students who lives in Meknes, invited me to his home tomorrow for the Feast of Sacrifice. He said that if I got there early enough, I could take photos of the actual sacrifice. Well, I don’t know . . . but, maybe. I promise I won’t post anything here that might offend delicate eyes. I went to his apartment earlier tonight so that I can find my way there tomorrow on my bicycle. We took a taxi, since he lives on the outskirts of the main city, a bit of a way out there. I asked where they would kill the sheep, and, apparently, they will do it on the roof of the apartment building. Anyway, it should be an interesting day. I ate the evening meal there, dining on Berber bread (his family’s ethnic origin is Berber), dates, olives, and harira (Morocco’s bean soup). He lives with his mother, father (a retiree from the Moroccan army), a 17-year old brother and a sister, who is leaving in a few weeks to join her husband in Montreal. By all accounts, there are quite a large number of Moroccans living and working in other countries, especially in Europe, due to its proximity, but also in Canada.

It rained for a few hours while I was there, but it’s supposed to clear up by tomorrow. Walking back from the taxi stand, I was quite cold–almost felt like Montana on a warm winter’s day. Ok, maybe not THAT cold. 😉

I read an article on BBC News today about National Voodoo Day in Benin, Africa, a small country I had the pleasure to work in during my brief Peace Corps experience back in 2000. Read it here. I spent many a hot, sunny day on the beach in Ouidah, along with Karen, Chris, Erin, Craig, Tuve and other PC friends. Brings back a tear or two, doesn’t it, gang. More later.

Catching Up

Whew! Lots of stuff going on to write about.

First, John did come to Meknes last Saturday and we went to Ifrane and Azrou, located in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains, in a quest for snow. We found some, but not enough to remind me of a Montana winter.

However, it was a gorgeous day, making for a memorable drive through the foothills of the Middle Atlas range. We drove through Ifrane, a Swiss-style village near the Mischliffen ski area, about 60 kilometers south-east of Meknes. Then it was on to Le Cedre Gouraud, a forest of ancient cedar trees, quite beautiful, inhabited by a pack of Barbary Apes. Different from Thai monkeys, they were very amiable and non-aggressive, but I was surprised that they lived this far north in Africa. Of course, Gibraltar, not all that far away, is overrun with the critters.

This is pastoral country, calming and soothing, and shepherding is still a prominent way of life, as it is in much of Morocco. So, while hiking one of the dirt roads, we weren’t surprised to wander into one of the ubiquitous flocks. Thankfully, the protecting dogs weren’t too concerned with us.

Just outside of Ifrane is the Moroccan national sports training center. John is quite a runner and is very knowledgeable about the subject. So, when we drove past a few guys jogging down the road, he pointed out their style, that this or that runner used his arms too much, etc. But then he was surprised at the sight of one of the runners, who, he thought, looked exactly like Hicham El Guerrouj (aka El G.), a double gold-medal winner in the 2004 Summer Olympics and a Moroccan national hero. The fellow, lank and wiry, was zooming along at a fair pace and hardly breaking a sweat, making me envious of his abilities. My maximum jogging pace would appear as walking in comparison to his graceful strides.

We then drove to Azrou, a very picturesque Berber village of about 50,000, nestled in the forested hills, about 20 kms from Ifrane. We stopped and bought a few beautiful, handcrafted wood products at the local municipal-run bazaar, some excellent deals for bowls, dishes, jewelry boxes and chess boards. The wonderful thing about this place, for me, is that all the prices are fixed, which means NO HAGGLING. I hate haggling because 1) I’m bad at it and because 2) I don’t speak good French (or Arabic or Berber).

The view from just outside Azrou:

On the way back we stopped at Boufekrane, about 12 kms from Meknes, a village reknowned throughout Morocco for the quality of its meat, a Guy’s Lolo Creek Steakhouse of North Africa, more or less. We ate at one of the small restaurants and, as advertised, the beef and lamb were great. We had brochettes (bbq beef chunks), lamb chops, and superb spiced ground beef. All in all, it was an excellent outing.

Since Monday, though, I’ve been hassling with getting my Moroccan national identity card. Mohammed and I have been running around in circles gathering all the relevant documents and signatures. This was supposed to have been taken care of by someone, whose name I won’t mention, at the U.S. Consulate in Rabat. Just a day before my visa was to expire, he phoned me and said that I was to take care of it. Not good. There was some concern about the possibility that I might be told to leave the country. However, after much footwork and driving around, it seems the situation has turned out ok. I’m to go to the authorities tomorrow and give them the required documents (5 altogether, in duplicate, notarized, with 9 passport-sized photos) and the identity card will be taken care of. Despite the hassle, the local Moroccan authorities have been most accomodating.

Because of all the time required in my quest to avoid prison time (just joking), I had to reschedule some classes. One I lectured at today from 4 to 5:30 p.m. So, I rode my bicycle home at night. It’s very exhilirating to ride a bike at night in Meknes; it gets ones blood flowing. You just have to make sure that it doesn’t flow in the cold, hard streets. It’s almost as much fun as riding on the back of Bangkok motor bikes. But riding a bike here, you’re in control of your own fate, so to speak. You need 5 eyes to keep a look out for all that is going on around you. Not only is the motor traffic bad, but worse are the pedestrians, who walk willy-nilly everywhere and are just as likely to pop out in front of you as is a taxi.

In Bangkok I was most surprised to see elephants wandering around on the main thoroughfares. In Morocco different obstacles present themselves. So tonight I’m riding home and I’m almost at my apartment building. My attention wanders a bit. All of a sudden I look up and looming before me in the shadows is a camel! A large one, too, with its handlers. Luckily, I saw it in time enough to avoid it, otherwise I would have rear-ended it. Wow! Elephants in Bangkok and camels in Meknes, on or near the main drag, right in front of you, reach out and touch them but don’t get run over by the traffic. What do you have to compare, Montana? Yes, bison and griz, sure, but meandering down the main streets of Great Falls or Glendive, majestic traffic hazards just waiting to snap up the unwary pedestrian or bicyclist? (I do, of course, exclude the deer herds of residential Missoula.)

What a wonderful world. Check it out. More later.

Chinese “Yellow Dust”

Yes, it’s that time of year again–the advent of Chinese Yellow Dust season, when dust blowing from the Gobi desert sweeps across not only China, but South Korea and Japan as well. The Korean Meteorological Administration issued a dust warning for the country, and I, not thinking about the dust until afterward, jogged outside today for about 30 minutes between classes. I probably inhaled 20 pounds of the stuff. You could hardly see the nearby mountains because of the haze; it’s as bad as a Montana forest fire. A former Chinese Prime Minister predicts that the capital city of Beijing will have to be abandoned in a few decades due to the advance of the Gobi desert.

Not much else happening here. The cherry blossoms are very near to blooming, so I’ll post some photos of their beauty as soon as they open up. Baseball’s Opening Day saw the mighty Yanks knock off Boston. Unfortunately, Rivera blew a couple of saves–that’s rather worrisome. Should be a fun season, though. Since I signed up for the MLB.com game feeds, I’ll be able to see most of the games. My brother Randy, with nothing better to do, keeps sending me taunting emails about the Yanks, which I refuse to respond to. I don’t think he has a favorite team–the former Yankee fan, now a screeching turncoat, only seems to root against the Yankees, but not FOR anyone else. He joins the ranks of untold thousands in that futile endeavor.

The big earthquake in Indonesian waters a little bit back brought this email from my friend Palm on Ko Sukorn in Thailand (I edited out some of his fractured English grammar and spelling for clarity):

How are you, Ron? Hope you are good. For me now, I am sick.
Do you know about earthquake. I am afraid very much. And every body
gone to the mountain again. Now, I sleep with my mother every night.
Because, I am afraid tsunami, Ron. And I am thinking tsunami is not come.
And what about you? You saw earthquake or not? In sukorn no have tourists and it’s raining every day.

Geez, I really feel for those people. If you’re going to take a vacation in Thailand this year, go to Ko Sukorn. You’ll love it for its beauty (though there are more beautiful beaches in Thailand), but you’ll want to stay because of its people. More later.